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Surviving an Economic Wilderness

  • Surviving an Economic Wilderness

    B'midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20
By: 
Elyse Frishman

I have experienced many difficulties and hardships in my life and yet despair is a state in which I rarely remain for long. This is largely because despair cannot share the same place as wonder. . ."
(Alice Walker, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness [New York: The New Press, 2006], p. 36)

With Shavuot coming, we begin a new book of Torah, the Book of Numbers, B'midbar. Contrasting Vayikra and B'midbar, the former focuses on how to live in holy ways, whereas B'midbar is filled with confrontation. Vayikra describes what would take place within the Mishkan, providing opportunities for spiritual cleansing and elevation including the most personal details of life. B'midbar addresses the people from outside of the Mishkan—outside where doubt and ego assail them. There are many struggles. Time and again the Israelites challenge Moses's authority and God's power. What with food rebellions (Numbers 11:1-34, 21:4-9), fear of entering the Promised Land (13:31-14:4), Korach's uprising (16:1-17:15, the sexual idolatry of the Midianites and Israelites (25:1-9), and so on, it is remarkable that we survived our despair.

In time of crisis, how do we organize ourselves as a community both to protect ourselves and to move forward? For months, we have struggled with the threat or impact of economic implosion. At the High Holy Days, we took stock of shrunken portfolios and began worrying about our futures. At the secular New Year, unemployment struck many, with portent of much, much more to come. In our congregations, night meetings have run late with debate over fiscal responsibility: Should there be program slashing? Staff cuts? Salary freezes? Will members leave us? Or does something exist at our core that will convince people that we must journey through this wilderness together?

B'midbar, the name of our portion as well as this new book, means "In the Wilderness." The word midbar, "wilderness," has the root dalet-bet-reish. Note that davar, which means "word," shares the same root, dalet-bet-reish . We received Torah b'midbar because we could only hear God's davar in a place without distraction. Davar acher: We received Torah b'midbar to teach that even in a spiritual wilderness, when we might be most compromised by despair, the wonder of revelation is with us. God's word is with us.

B'midbar begins: Having camped at Mount Sinai for almost one year, the Israelites are about to move on. A military census determines the composition of an army against enemies like the Amalekites. Noted are 603,550 men of eligible fighting status, suggesting a total number of two million-including other men, women, and children (see The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005] p. 912). Imagine the challenges Moses faced moving this huge population, physically and spiritually! The breadth of his vision to cultivate a civilization based on Torah ideals was staggering. He recognized the fragility of unity; the Golden Calf rebellion was a catastrophe in which over 3,000 people were killed. How would the Children of Israel survive the physical and spiritual challenges of the journey through the wilderness?

And how would Moses motivate them to leave Mount Sinai and forge ahead into the unknown? Sages surmise that after Revelation, the people remained at Sinai for almost one year, until the Mishkan was erected; the census took place on the first of Iyar in the second year of the Exodus from Egypt. Imagine the reluctance of the people to leave.

". . . the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting . . ." (Numbers 1:1). God would not desert them; Revelation would continue after Mount Sinai. The coinciding of the location of the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness of Sinai was deliberate, teaching that the forces of Torah and the Mishkan were unified ( Zohar B'midbar , 117ab). The wilderness of Sinai paralleled Mount Sinai; the Mishkan echoed the Mount where God addressed Moses. Mishkan means "place of the Divine Presence." God would remain in the people's midst. God's word would continue to sustain them throughout their journey.

Moving through the wilderness, all the tribes were arranged carefully around the Tent, around Sinai per se, to remind them that Torah must be at the center. Metaphorically, the army needed to guard against the idolatrous lure of outside cultures. The soldiers had to understand and appreciate the worth of the society they were protecting. They were shomrei Torah,"protectors of Torah." Thus the Mishkan at the center, with its Ark containing the covenant, reminded all of what defined them as a people.

A balance of awe and pragmatism surrounded the handling of the Mishkan: unlike Mount Sinai whose ascent was forbidden to all but Moses, the Mishkan required human touch-to be disassembled, lifted, carried, and reassembled. Rambam taught that when they carried the Holy Ark, the Kohathites faced inward, away from the outside world (Hilchot Klei HaMikdash2:13). Rambam might have understood this instruction to reflect the serious intent of the men upon their task not to be distracted by the outside world, all attention focused—not even on the direction in which they were moving—but on the Ark. Davar acher: The position of the porters mirrored the position of the cherubim above the Ark they carried, who faced one another. These winged angels stood looking at each other with arms outstretched, as if welcoming one another through the wisdom words of the covenant they guarded. The Kohathites embodied the cherubim perhaps so that as the Israelites traveled they could "see" the Ark in their midst-see that Torah would travel with them constantly.

How can we survive this economic wilderness if we don't travel with the Mishkan at our center? The economic landscape of our nation has changed; we're moving from a mountain of aspiration to a desert of survival. But the sacred covenant travels with us. The partnership of rabbi and president, clergy and trustees, leader and member, must not be left behind; it's all that distinguishes us as a sacred community. Living by Torah is what we do best; indeed, it's all we're really entitled to do.

Even though some economic decisions have been determined for the coming year, it is important to examine those decisions under the lens of Torah. Talmud is filled with advice on financial and people management. Have you developed an overarching financial strategy and philosophy that is recognizably Jewish or merely corporate? Who are the primary guides? Is there a sacred partnership between the all of our guardians, soldiers and priests, laity and clergy?

No aspect of life's struggles can be Torah free; every decision must be grounded in God's word. The entire Book of B'midbar demonstrates that our survival depends on it. We can only despair if we forget the wonder of Sinai and its eternal message:

Emet, there is no place
where You are not;
even in the wilderness
there is Your word.
(Mishkan T'filah: A Reform Siddur, ed. Elyse Frishman [New York: CCAR Press, 2007] p. 239)

Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the spiritual leader of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. She is the editor of Mishkan T'filah, A Reform Siddur.

The Torah that Enriches Us All
Davar Acher By: 
James A. Gibson

I began my rabbinate in small congregations, as a student rabbi for four years in Seminole, Oklahoma, and for five years as the rabbi at Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau, Wisconsin (situated about three hours north of Madison, Wisconsin). It was in small towns and cities that I learned first hand of the incredible daily efforts that our people make to ensure that synagogues survive and thrive.

When Rabbi Frishman asks us to keep Torah at the center, in light of the present economic crisis, I think of so many congregations who confront this issue every day, regardless of whether the stock market is up or down.

Although we often get excited over inspiring programs and initiatives, our tradition calls us to remember the down-to-earth tasks that keep our communities spiritually whole as well as financially fit. In the traditional Mi Shebeirach for the community we pray:

May God bless those who dedicate synagogues for worship
And those who enter therein to pray
Those who provide lamps for lighting
And wine for Kiddush and Havdalah
Those who give food for the wayfarer
And charity to the poor
As well as all who faithfully occupy themselves
with the needs of the community

(Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem, The Daily Prayer Book , translated and annotated by Philip Birnbaum [New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949] pp. 379-380)

While Rabbi Frishman teaches that we are "moving from a mountain of aspiration to a desert of survival," the tasks listed above often do not require much money. They call for us to open our hearts before our hands.

And the open heart, so necessary for authentic Jewish living, costs nothing.

Even the Torah itself is free, as we learn in B'midbar Rabbah 1:7: "Why is the Torah marked by these three features (fire, water, and wilderness)? To indicate as these are free for all humankind, so are the words of the Torah free: 'Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come for water.' (Isaiah 55:1)."

We are richest as Jews when we rediscover and recommit to Torah, which costs nothing. This, in turn, leads us to faith and purposeful acts, which mean everything. Learning that leads to doing is our time-honored and tradition-based way to make it through every wilderness we face. Kadimah, "forward," we move, despite the present wilderness, to the land of promise that lies beyond.

James A. Gibson is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

5/23/2009
Reference Materials: 

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,028-1,043; Revised Edition, pp. 897-916;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 787-814